A machine with superhuman intelligence is a staple of science fiction. But what about a machine with just ordinary human intelligence? A machine that's so humanlike in its behavior that you can't tell if it's a computer acting like a human, or a real human?

That's what a Turing Test is designed to explore. The test is named for the British computer scientist Alan Turing, who first proposed it. (He's the guy the movie The Imitation Game was about.) Essentially, it involves making a program that does something a human might do — in a way that's indistinguishable from what an actual human would produce.

Writing a computer program than can pass a Turing Test doesn't just involve writing clever computer code: It means picking apart human behavior so you understand its essence.

"It might actually tell you a lot more about what it's like to be human than ... about what it's like to be a machine trying to be a human," says Dan Rockmore, director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College.

Rockmore and some of his colleagues have established three competitions that will test programmers' ability to distill the human essence into computer code:

  • DigiLit: Create a computer program that can write a short story.
  • PoetiX: Create a program that can generate a sonnet.
  • AlgoRhythms: Create a program that can combine music into a dance mix.

The result should be more than regurgitated syntax or strung-together hits; it should capture what human beings bring to prose, poetry and music. But Rockmore is not looking for a program that can write a sonnet worthy of Shakespeare or a story that could have been written by Alice Walker.
"I'm hoping a machine can generate an average short story," he says. "I'm not looking for experimental short fiction. And similarly for a sonnet, I wouldn't be looking for a random collection of things that had the right meter and the right rhyme scheme, which ... from some postmodern point of view might appear to be a great sonnet."

Similarly, the point of AlgoRhythms is to make as good a tape as an average dance DJ could, maybe better.

Rockmore admits he has a bit of a hidden agenda: getting people who have never thought about sonnets or short stories to take a serious look at those art forms.

He's sneaking in art, by way of computer science. "I always feel like I was a humanities guy who made a wrong turn," he says.

People planning to enter the competition have until March 2016 to get their submissions in. The details are here.

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